Tapped: The Prospect Group Blog

DeVos Fails Students, Again.

The higher education system is broken, but instead of fixing it, the Department of Education is intent on breaking it even more.

The gainful employment rule was an Obama-era regulation that protected against the predatory loan practices of for-profit colleges by monitoring their students’ ability to earn back their debt after graduation. Last week, the Department of Education repealed it, the culmination of their years-long attempt to free for-profit colleges from what Betsy DeVos deemed as unfair targeting of for-profit institutions by Democrats. The rule was simple, it made sure students were able to pay off their loans after graduation, and kept the quality of an education in check with its cost. Now, DeVos has stripped that protection, and allowed for-profit colleges to slip back into their deceptive and fraudulent behaviors, with the potential to worsen an already dire student-debt crisis. Since the Department of Education has enabled for-profit educational institutions to take advantage of students, policymakers need to put more permanent measures in place to protect them. 

The 2014 regulation required vocational programs at for-profit colleges and non-degree programs at community colleges to meet a minimum threshold of student debt-to-income standards. If they failed, the institutions lost their federal aid, which was how the majority stayed afloat in the first place. The rule was termed gainful employment, a reference to Title IV of the Higher Education Act that requires non-profit institutions to lead to “gainful employment in a recognized occupation” to be eligible for federal funds. Gainful employment then, was already part of the Higher Education Act and the Obama administration created the needed criteria to fully implement it. When the first ratings were released nearly 98 percent of the institutions that did not meet the threshold were for-profit institutions. While DeVos and Republicans  argue the exclusion of non-vocational programs from the regulation as targeting, the data don't lie; for-profit institutions take advantage of students and ill-prepare them for their future. The regulation served as a needed consumer protection, protecting a vital good—an education. 

The for-profit college industry has a history of corruption and without a gainful employment rule,  their predatory practices will thrive. Since 2000, the number of for-profit institutions grew extensively, grounded by an influx of federal funding. But compared to community colleges and public institutions, degree programs at for-profit colleges are five to six times the cost while their students have consistently worse career outcomes, with post-graduate earnings 11 percent lower. This creates a vicious cycle of students taking out loans and then being unable to pay them back. Indeed, while for-profit colleges make up only 10 percent of higher education students, they account for 50 percent of student loan defaults.

Financial disclosures from for-profit and vocational institutions showed one in ten graduates attended programs that failed to meet gainful employment criteria. More, 28 percent of those students were concentrated at three places: the University of Phoenix, ITT Technical Institute, and the Art Institute of Phoenix. For ITT Tech, a giant in the for-profit college industry, the gainful employment rule led to its rightful demise

These institutions don’t just take financial advantage of students, they capitalize on racial inequality and target minority populations. Blacks and Latinos make up over half of those who attend for-profit colleges, often times a result of strategic and deceptive targeting; Corinthian College, before it too closed its doors, spent over $600,000 on advertising on the BET channel alone. Women with children are also often appealed to with  promises of short degree programs and online courses that fit their lifestyle as parents, as Whitney Barkley-Denney, Senior Policy Counsel with the Center for Responsible Lending told me. In reality, these institutions set already vulnerable students up to fail and then reap the benefits.

Since DeVos’s appointment in 2016, the Department of Education began to reverse accountability measures and delayed implementation of the rule as they reworked it. In addition, the Department of Education shut down the investigation unit tasked with looking into institutions that had a history of fraud. DeVos’s close relationship with the for-profit industry giants and lobbyists, make her actions unsurprising but nonetheless urgent. While the Department of Education continues to deregulate higher education at the expense of students, other government actors need to step in. 

On June 26, Representatives Susie Lee and Rosa DeLauro introduced the PROTECT Students Act, the House version of a Senate bill that codifies gainful employment into law. The bill proposes new regulatory measures including the creation of a For-profit Education Oversight Coordination Committee. Legislation like this can make up for the failure of the Trump administration and establish permanent safeguards, not ones that fluctuate with each administration’s politics. DeVos and the Department of Education have done everything in their power to jettison protections that ensure students across the country are able to get an affordable education and stable employment, exacerbating an already broken system that congressional action needs to counter. 

Building the Right Narrative to Win the Next Recession

When Obama took office in 2009, senior administration officials equivocated over how to jump-start recovery amid the Great Recession. “Because monetary policy had been the key anti-recessionary tool for the previous 20 years, we had little knowledge of exactly how well fiscal stimulus would work and which type of stimulus would be the most effective,” said former Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers Christina Romer. Speaking at the Economic Policy Institute last week, Romer argued that since the Fed has limited power when a recession hits, creating adequate fiscal policy is essential.

The long-lasting consequences of the Great Recession, combined with a generation of underinvestment, has left U.S. communities vulnerable to another economic downturn. A recession could hit in the next 18 months, according to experts speaking at EPI’s Next Recession event, and the fiscal policy necessary to combat it needs to be put in place now. Public-investment legislation, including the right automatic stabilizers and creating government jobs, could mitigate the potential blowback of a fiscal plunge.

In recent years, tax cuts on the wealthy and loopholes for corporations have kept large sums of money in the hands of the wealthy. President Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 only excacerbated the divide, hurting vulnerable communities that have not had the chance to fully recover from the previous recession. An Economic Bill of Rights, insists Kirwan Institute Executive Director Darrick Hamilton, would ensure an inclusive economy that benefits all. Protecting economic stability for every American would uplift underserved communities and reduce the consequences of a financial panic, even for those still recovering.

Greater public investment could invigorate the economy from its roots. During Romer’s year and a half in the Obama White House, she learned the importance of “jobs not checks.” She cited New Deal–era programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps that put Americans back to work.

“When you create a public-sector job, that has spillovers. An employed worker goes out and buys things and that puts other people to work,” Romer said. These programs boosted morale and improved public spaces to benefit the community as a whole.

That said, it’s difficult to ensure the prioritization of workers as economic disaster unfolds. Automatic stabilizers that protect jobs at the local, state, and federal levels are essential to keep the basis of the economy intact in the worst of times. They would guarantee that even if another bubble bursts, roads will be paved, children will be taught, and criminals will face justice.

“Public jobs are the cornerstone of what is needed to emerge from a recession stronger,” said Amy Hanauer, executive director of Policy Matters Ohio. Investing in workers who keep the economy thriving is a surefire way to pull through a recession and enrich our economic future.

Before the next recession hits, Democrats need to outline a persuasive narrative to spur large-scale investment. Romer admits that the administration should have done more to make the case in favor of fiscal stimulus to the American public. But since then, the American public has seemingly grown skeptical of much-needed interventions. As Romer told EPI, “Even actions like extending unemployment insurance during a long downturn are now highly controversial.”

Part of the reason for misguided public attitudes, experts lament, is the failure of Democrats to shape the debate. Margarida Jorge, a grassroots organizing expert and executive director of Health Care for America Now, commented on how easy it is for Republicans to monopolize the conversation about the economy when Democrats remain silent about the issue. “When you have nothing to say and your opposition has a lot to say,” Jorge said, “people tend to believe your opposition.”

Crafting the right narrative about defending workers, reining in Wall Street, and strengthening the social safety net is the first step to drafting adequate policy.

Every American Pays for Rape

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and it is important to understand how the trauma of rape affects every taxpayer: Many sexual-assault survivors depend on federal, state, and local government programs to help heal, recover, and restart their lives.

According to a 2017 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study, rape costs 25 million victims more than $3 trillion over the course of a lifetime. Individuals struggle with impacts of the abuse, including medical and psychological trauma, as well as legal, employment, and housing issues.

The CDC researchers found that about $1 trillion of those expenses fall to government agencies. Overall, a survivor’s lifetime costs add up to more than $122,000 per person with nearly $39,000, or roughly one-third, coming from government sources. Those costs include survivors’ services provided by federal, state, and local criminal justice agencies.

Moreover, individuals who do not have stable incomes, have not attended college, or are people of color or undocumented face even more difficulties grappling with their trauma. A 2018 National Resource Center on Domestic Violence survey of advocates for domestic violence and sexual-assault survivors and social services and anti-poverty workers found that most rape survivors who already experience economic difficulties rely on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); another 20 percent collect unemployment benefits.

“The higher the level of oppression someone faces, the more challenges there could be economically after a sexual assault,” says Jennifer Wyse, the supervising social worker at the New York–based Safe Horizon, the largest nonprofit service organization for sexual abuse survivors in the United States.

It’s easy to ignore the prevalence of sexual assault. Some people conclude that if the abuse hasn’t happened to them or one of their loved ones, then the issue doesn’t affect them. But every 92 seconds someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. And taxpayers will carry the fiscal burden for the social and emotional costs that sexual-assault survivors have to deal with for the rest of their lives.

Notre Dame, the National Museum of Brazil, and Weighing Cultural Losses

The world watched in horror Monday as a massive fire tore through Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral, destroying large portions of the seven-century-old landmark. News channels went into special-coverage mode, newspapers around the world published impressive photos, and millions of dollars in donations for reconstruction began pouring in.

A tragedy of this scale clearly merited the attention. Nevertheless, it provides a troubling contrast with the far more muted response to a tragedy last September in South America.

The National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro held a collection of nearly 20 million items, making it the largest natural-history museum in all of Latin America. It was home to many of the most valuable cultural artifacts in Brazil, including the oldest-known human fossil in the Americas, nearly five million butterfly and arthropod specimens, and audio recordings of indigenous languages that are no longer spoken.

But a fire on the night of September 2, 2018, gutted the two-centuries-old former palace that housed the museum. Employees and firefighters rushed in to rescue what they could, but unlike with Notre Dame, where most of the valuable relics were saved, nearly 90 percent of the museum’s collection was lost. Many researchers, including the specialists studying recordings of indigenous languages, which had not yet been digitized, saw their life’s work destroyed.

 

Fire at National Museum of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, 2018/Wikimedia Commons

 

One politician described the impact as “a lobotomy of the Brazilian memory.”

Decades of neglect were major factors in the blazes at both sites. But severe financial problems at the National Museum contributed to a host of issues that could have been easily addressed. The installation of sprinklers and other fire safety features that could have helped contain the blaze were delayed for years. When firefighters showed up, the nearby fire hydrants weren’t working. The fire’s cause, identified last week, was circuit breakers and grounding devices in the air conditioning system that were improperly installed.  

Although the Brazil fire garnered some international media coverage, Google search data shows that the conflagration received less than 5 percent of the interest that the Notre Dame fire generated. While the comparison between the two landmarks is imperfect, a discrepancy this large suggests that the loss of Latin American cultural heritage simply does not capture the world’s attention the way the loss of Western European cultural heritage does.

This lack of attention has financial consequences: Months later, the museum is struggling to raise enough money to begin construction on the sections of the facility that can be rebuilt.

Cultural heritage is irreplaceable, and the need to invest in preservation is urgent. The world is stepping up to meet this need for Notre Dame, but the National Museum has not received anywhere near the same attention—and that should give us pause as we consider the cultures we value, preserve, and rescue when catastrophes strike.

Human Rights Watch Details Ongoing U.S. Criminal Justice Abuses

Despite recent progress toward criminal justice reform, the United States continues to pursue policies that encourage mass incarceration and fail to rehabilitate offenders, according to a Human Rights Watch report presented to the United Nations Human Rights Committee earlier this year.

The international watchdog organization also detailed a spectrum of overreach and misconduct in the criminal justice system, including adult sentences for juvenile offenders and disproportionate sentencing based on race.

The U.S. juvenile detention system often tries young people as adults and metes out sentences that outweigh the crimes. The number of youth in prison has dropped by 50 percent since its peak in 2000, but over 5,000 juveniles remain incarcerated in adult jails and prisons nationwide.

Human Rights Watch raised specific concerns about disproportionate sentencing and racial profiling. While African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, African Americans are imprisoned on drug charges at six times the rate of white users.

Surprisingly, the Trump administration has taken some steps toward effective criminal justice reforms; President Trump signed the First Step Act into law in December. New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker said in statement that the bill would help “correct the ills of the failed War on Drugs.” The law includes provisions that increase good-time credits, move offenders closer to their homes, and expand skill-building programs.

But Human Rights Watch and other criminal justice advocacy groups vehemently opposed the measure, and last spring the group urged the House Judiciary Committee to vote no. Jasmine Tyler, Human Rights Watch’s U.S. advocacy director, explained that most of the text is “extremely problematic,” with the exception of few measures like retroactivity for equalizing powder cocaine and crack cocaine sentences.

Attorney General William Barr could also pose a threat to reform, the group says. Barr has a history of supporting initiatives, from harsher sentencing for crack cocaine to co-signing a report in favor of increasing incarceration in the 1990s, that are at odds with the First Step Act as well as broader criminal justice reform efforts.

Tyler also criticized the use of a “risk assessment based on a likely racist system” to place people into re-entry programs that “likely don’t exist.” According to Tyler, the law does not address the limited services and abysmal halfway-house conditions that many people returning to their communities face. As Human Rights Watch said in a letter to the committee, passing “back-end reform” without including “front-end reform” won’t meaningfully improve the federal system.

Prison Advocates Declare Win as Proposed Prison Phone Industry Merger Dies

Last year, two prison phone company giants, Securus and Inmate Calling Solutions (ICS) announced they planned to merge, sparking concerns of duopoly in an industry already dominated by a just a few major players. Such consolidation has long impacted poor people and those of color disproportionately, along with their families, as prison phone companies charge exorbitant rates for inmates who have few alternatives. If approved, the merger threatened to put more than three-quarters of the market in the hands of just two companies, Securus and Global Tel Link. But yesterday, Securus withdrew its application to buy ICS after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) indicated that they would not approve it.

FCC Chair Ajit Pai, normally not one to raise concerns over corporate consolidation, said in a statement that:

Based on a record of nearly one million documents comprised of 7.7 million pages of information submitted by the applicants, as well as arguments and evidence submitted by criminal justice advocates, consumer groups, and other commenters, FCC staff concluded that this deal posed significant competitive concerns and would not be in the public interest.

That line about the “criminal justice advocates” is important: groups such as the Prison Policy Institute, the Wright Petitioners, Worth Rises, and others have highlighted for months how the merger would affect prisoners, including through filings submitted to the FCC. Because the two largest companies in the industry would no longer be competing with each other, the merger would have likely meant even more expensive phone calls for prisoners and their families who only want to speak to each other while separated. Even now, without the merger, these calls can be incredibly expensive—sometimes up to a $1 per minute. These costs often fall on families of the incarcerated, who, like their imprisoned family member, tend to be very poor.

“Every day, these companies profit off of the separation of families and communities by exploiting the natural need for human connection. This win gets us closer to stopping them,” executive director of prisoner advocacy group Worth Rises Bianca Tylek said in a statement.

What’s next? Perhaps it’s time to make those prison phone calls free.

Maryland’s Failure to Connect Stalking With Gun Violence

Although Maryland boasts having some of the toughest gun control laws in the country, the state is missing a critical loophole in its approach to public safety: stalking. Maryland is the only state that rules this crime a misdemeanor, which means stalkers can still buy a gun after conviction. And the state has intimate knowledge of this fact.  

In July 2018, five people were murdered by a convicted stalker at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis. The perpetrator had pled guilty to criminal harassment of a former high school classmate in 2015 and attacked the newspaper because of its coverage of his sentencing. Five people paid the price because of one man’s anger toward women.

Maryland Democrats have since aimed to close this loophole. In January, Senators Susan Lee and Sarah Elfreth of Montgomery and Annapolis, respectively, introduced a bill that would prohibit stalkers from owning firearms. Since then the bill has gained 10 cosponsors, and legislators conducted a hearing on it in the House on March 21.

While the measure is a step in the right direction, it’s still not getting to the root of the problem. The true problem is that stalking is not considered enough of a threat.

According to a report by the Center for American Progress, stalking remains dangerous and prominent—even in states with harsher penalties. Around one in six women and one in 19 men have experienced stalking in their lifetime. Eighty-one percent of women who are being stalked by a former or intimate partner have been physically abused before. Seventy-six percent of murdered women were stalked the year before with a majority of stalkers being a former intimate partner. Escalation of violence is a clear pattern in stalking cases, and allowing stalkers to purchase guns is killing people.

In response, nine states have prohibited people convicted of misdemeanor stalking charges from purchasing a gun. But Maryland is not on that list. Instead, the Old Line State has focused on passing other legislation in regards to gun control, including: a red flag provision that allows family members and law enforcement to temporarily confiscate firearms; a ban on the sale and possession of bump stocks; and a requirement of domestic violence convicts to surrender their guns.

Maryland can begin to rectify this loophole in its gun restriction laws by passing the bill by Senators Lee and Elfreth. However, to truly address the problem, the state needs to look at diversifying the definition of stalking to include felony charges. Only then will there be less violent attacks like the one in the Capital Gazette newsroom.  

Inventor of the World Wide Web Speaks Out About Online Misinformation

No, we’re not talking about Al Gore. Thirty years ago, on March 12, 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, then a researcher at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory, sent a proposal to his boss for a protocol to access information on the internet. That protocol would become the World Wide Web, the near-universally adopted standard by which information is exchanged over the internet. But at the time, his boss returned his proposal with only three words scribbled at the top: “Vague but exciting.”

Berners-Lee presciently envisioned many of the concepts that are today foundational to the internet. For instance, he always knew it had to be free. There was actually a competing internet standard called “Gopher” being developed at the University of Minnesota that was initially more popular than the World Wide Web, but it collapsed in part because the university did not guarantee that it would never implement licensing fees as CERN did.

Of course, Berners-Lee never initially imagined that the web would become the phenomenon it is today. In a recent wide-ranging conversation with The Washington Post, he discussed the rapid spread of misinformation on the web that was weaponized by Russia during the 2016 campaign and exacerbated crises like the genocide in Myanmar.

The explosion of misinformation caught him off guard just as it did everyone else. Up until recently, Berners-Lee said, he told people who alerted him to bad things on the web that those things were there just because “the web is a mirror of humanity, [and] if you look at humanity, you will find bad people,” so just “don’t browse the garbage websites.”

Berners-Lee has now concluded that if the web is a mirror of humanity, it’s at the very least a distorted mirror. After the Brexit vote and the Trump election, he said he took a “big step back,” realizing that “it’s not just about there being junk out there that we all should ignore,” he said, but about “clever, advanced operators” manipulating people for their own destructive ends.

The internet’s amplification of those darker aspects of human nature is impossible to ignore. Technology has indeed brought us together. One disturbing conclusion may be that as we come together, we may not like who we are.

Another Way to Police the Poor

On Monday, The New York Times reported that the federal government was exploring ways to use social media to crack down on instances of disability fraud, even as applications for disability benefits fall.

This is not the first time that the government has looked to social media to investigate welfare fraud—in fact, such an intrusion of privacy is actually quite key to the history of public assistance programs. Back in the 1960s, welfare officials would regularly make unannounced home visits (sometimes even “midnight raids”) to women receiving traditional cash benefits to see if they lived in accordance with welfare eligibility rules. If there was, for example, evidence of a “man in the house” (no matter the casualness of the relationship), the woman would be denied her benefits.

While raids and inspections like these have generally been ruled unconstitutional, the state has turned to the internet to regulate the poor. It’s not uncommon for state governments to scan social media for instances of “welfare fraud,” which is, it is necessary to note, exceedingly rare.

The Department of Social and Health Services in Washington state is very clear on its website that it “focus[es] on the use of social media to identify EBT card misuse.” What they likely mean is that extremely poor people will often try to sell their measly food stamp funds—which can only be used to purchase food—in order to get a smaller amount of cash. This investigative program is operated by a federal grant that created a partnership between the federal Office of Family Assistance and law enforcement “to hire additional investigators and carry out online sting operations.” Indeed, Washington’s DSHS even celebrated the arrest of someone trying to trade their drugs for EBT funds. The agency’s press release began ominously, “Note to would-be food benefits traffickers. You’re being watched.”

Even the most progressive of local governments—like that of the District of Columbia—devote substantial attention and resources to cracking down on the ever-elusive welfare fraud. The reason that “program integrity”—the fancy way to talk about fraud—is such a priority even for progressives is so that they can pre-empt conservative arguments about people who use welfare who are seen as undeserving. (I would argue that’s not a battle that can be won.)

The federal government scanning disability recipients’ social media goes a step further than checking Craigslist or the Facebook marketplace. Under the new plan that the administration is developing, federal officials would look for evidence on personal social media pages to determine whether a person receiving disability insurance is disabled. Distasteful as the proposal is, it is also ridiculous—not to mention offensive—to assume that disability (especially mental illness) can be so easily detected.

“Just because someone posted a photograph of them golfing or going fishing in February of 2019 does not mean that the activity occurred in 2019,” Lisa D. Ekman, chairwoman of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, told the Times. And regardless, the experience of disability is so varied and personal it should not be up to the government to decide whether a person is or is not actually disabled enough for them to work. Laughably, the Trump administration pointed to telework—which some of its agencies are actively reducing—as a reason that fewer people should receive disability benefits. (Telework, of course, is not a possibility in every job—especially low-wage jobs.)

The dichotomy between those who are deserving and undeserving of public benefits, with the government as arbiter, lies at the foundation of the American social safety net. The plan to police personal social media accounts is an invasion of privacy—but it’s nothing that low-income people haven’t always experienced.

Americans at Odds With Trump Policies—and Priorities

Trump's policy agenda is losing traction among the American public as he begins his third year in office, according to a January Pew Research Center report. From the economy to health care to the environment, voters find themselves increasingly at odds with both the president’s priorities and apparent solutions.

As in years past, the economy ranks first among voters’ policy concerns. But since the end of the Great Recession, that concern has dropped, from 87 percent of voters saying the economy was their biggest priority to 70 percent today. During Trump’s time in office alone, that number has dropped 5 percentage points.

Despite this shift, Trump has made economic recovery a centerpiece of his domestic agenda—often in unpopular ways. He has damaged relationships with key partners, such as China, Mexico, and Canada, by threatening trade wars and undermining trade agreements.

Yet Americans clearly do not approve of his supposed solutions. Over the past two years, support for NAFTA has gone up by 7 percentage points. Meanwhile, fewer voters are concerned about China’s presence than anytime in the past 15 years. 

Trump has also put immigration and terrorism at the top of his domestic agenda, often conflating the two through dog-whistle Islamophobia. Once again, voters don’t seem to be buying it. While immigration remains an important issue for Americans, the percentage of people concerned about terrorism is at its lowest since the September 11 attacks. From the time of Trump’s inauguration, this share has dropped nine points, from 76 to 67 percent. It would not be surprising if this percentage dropped even more due to the recent shutdown negotiations with Congress. Few outside of Trump’s base approved of the president’s hard-line approach regarding the border wall. Even now, less than 40 percent view his national emergency declaration favorably.

Meanwhile, due in part to Republican attacks on the Affordable Care Act, more Americans view health care as their biggest concern than at any point since 2008. It’s not hard to see why: Since taking office, Trump has worked to undercut Obamacare at every turn, from attacking protections for patients with pre-existing conditions to allowing higher premiums that undercut the individual mandate. In response, the public made health care the most important issue for the midterm 2018 elections. Approval of Obamacare has even increased.  

Finally, in spite of the administration’s fervent climate denial, protecting the environment saw the most dramatic rise on Americans’ list of priorities. Over the past two years, Trump has waged a vicious war against environmental policy and climate science, empowering fossil-fuel interests, undermining the scientific consensus on climate change, and withdrawing from the critical Paris Agreement, which aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Trump also gutted the budget and staff of the Environmental Protection Agency, giving polluters an increasingly free reign to defy federal regulations. However, according to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center, most people want more regulation to protect the planet, not less. In this sense, the president is failing the citizens of the U.S. by not helping air and water quality and maintaining enough natural habitat. This is why legislation such as the Green New Deal has arisen in Congress.

Overall, people want change, but not the kind that Trump wants to deliver. 

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